No, the Great Central Main Line is not an adequate alternative to HS2

London Marylebone. Image: Oxyman/Wikimedia Commons.

On 3 August, the Spectator published an article arguing that there was a superior alternative to building HS2: reopening the Great Central Main Line.

That line stretched from London Marylebone, through Rugby, Leicester, and Nottingham, to Sheffield and Manchester. It was closed under the Beeching cuts, on the grounds that it was largely a duplicate of the Midland Main Line, but much of the trackbed is still extant.

Reviving this route perhaps would cost less to build than HS2: some parts of it are still in mainline use. But it remains an inferior option, nonetheless.

A map of the Great Central network in 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a start, the Great Central route would miss out two of the four key HS2 cities, Leeds and Birmingham. It would thus not fulfil one of the key purposes of HS2 – relieving the West Coast Main Line. Instead it would increase capacity on the Midland Main Line, probably the least important of the three north-south mainlines – something reflected in the fact that it still hasn't been electrified. (Cheers, Chris. No, we're not going to stop mentioning you, even though you've lost your job. Sorry.)

Also, why go to the trouble of building a new high-speed railway that misses out the UK's second city (Birmingham) and one of its fastest-growing (Leeds)? Instead, we get Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham, and Sheffield. These places are important – and desperately need better transport links – but it seems ridiculous to suggest that they are more important than Leeds and Birmingham.

HS2 will be faster, too. Whilst trains tend to dominate the market share for fast journeys when the journey itself takes less than 2hr30, only a few services – between London and Manchester, for example – are already fast enough to ensure a dominant market share. There is immense potential for onward journeys to Newcastle, Carlisle, Glasgow, and Edinburgh – places from which train travel to London and Birmingham does take longer than 2hr30. (Indeed, it takes longer to get to Birmingham from Newcastle than it does to get to London.)

HS2 services, using the HS2-only route to Manchester or Leeds and then moving onto classic sections of the rail network, will deliver real journey time reductions to these places, making rail travel more attractive for people living in the north-east, north-west, and Scotland. If we're building a whole new line, we might as well build it properly.

The Great Central would also still require expensive tunnelling beneath Nottingham and Leicester. In Leicester, almost all of the trackbed has been built on; in Nottingham, it's been taken over by trams. In Sheffield, things are simpler, but the route is also safeguarded for potential tram extensions. In this way, the Great Central route could in fact damage local transport.

To add to this, connections within cities will be awkward. Most of the big city stations on the Great Central route – Sheffield Victoria, Nottingham Victoria, Leicester Central, Rugby Central – have been closed and no longer exist. Transfers from these stations to others will be necessary anyway.


So is the Great Central route really a simpler alternative? The sections from London-Aylesbury and Manchester-Hadfield are also congested, and expensive and disruptive capacity improvements would be vital, probably including two additional tracks alongside these sections for intercity services. This alone would cost billions.

When you also consider that the original terminus, London Marylebone, has no spare capacity – In fact, no London terminus has any real spare capacity – and that land prices in London are astronomical, a London terminus for the new Great Central Main Line will cost more billions.

The final problem with the Great Central route is a less obvious one. The British public has something of an obsession with heritage railways: it's one of those strangely British things, like drinking tea, keeping vast numbers of pets, or constantly talking about the weather. The Great Central railway is one such heritage railway, with two sections of track still in use – one from Leicester to Loughborough, and another from just north of Loughborough to just south of Nottingham.

A major project has been underway for some years to reconnect the two halves, and the railway is somewhat unique as the only double-track heritage railway in the world operating. This project, with its 18 miles of track, would have to be torn apart. Think the British public are angry at the destruction of ancient woodland? Just wait until you break up a major heritage railway.

The Great Central line may still has a role to play – much of it could and should be reopened. Reopening the line from Rugby to London, for example, would be fairly simple, bar station improvements at both ends, and could increase capacity on the most congested section of the WCML – an easy win.

But it's not an adequate replacement for HS2, and it wouldn't end up being much cheaper either, with extensive tunnelling and compensation schemes needed anyway. HS2 is not perfect, and more stations are needed – but it remains the better option for the UK. The Great Central route is no real alternative.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.